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Posts Tagged ‘RTE’

I suspect only those who have lived (or are living through) a Civil War can know what that is like. The rest of us live through them only vicariously, at best. The protracted and bloody conflict in Syria is an example of one such nightmare, but there have been others. In a land where division and mistrust of neighbour lives in paradoxical proximity to a strong sense of camaraderie and innate hospitality, the short and bloody conflict in Ireland following the War of Independence (1917 – 1921) is one. I have in earlier posts written something about the family involvement in this, and also in the Civil War after Collins’ death.

Civil Wars are toxic, and they invariably feed themselves from poisonous antecedents. When they are over it is perhaps not surprising, yet very damaging, that they are very often not spoken of again. They become buried into the national unconscious, and into family systems. Civil Wars force splits that reverberate across the generations just as much as they cross the garden fences and shopping aisles of the everyday life of a community. They also leave unanswered questions and incomplete sentences, so to speak, in the grammar of community well-being.

I have never seen or been part of a Civil conflict, but when RTE, Ireland’s main broadcasting company, recently aired an edition of a programme presented by Eddie Hobbs called “My Civil War” I suddenly found my grandfather’s name implicated in one of the three incidents under scrutiny – albeit without any evidence in support of that implicit connection – a notorious event of the Irish Civil War in Dublin in late 1922. The incident involved the murder of three teenagers from the Drumcondra district of north Dublin. Their bullet-ridden bodies were discovered in lying in waste ground at an intersection called Red Cow in the late summer of 1922, in the midst of the Civil War which had pitted former comrades in arms into factions of pro and anti-treaty alliances. The pro-treaty forces had formed the first independent government in Ireland and were in the process of establishing the many systems required for statehood. The anti-treaty forces were much smaller, a guerilla force of perhaps a few thousand, with some additional popular support gathered around the controversial figure of Eamon de Valera.

This sounds like a history book, but history – even in extraordinary times – is made mostly by ordinary people. I could criticise the programme for several things, not least the rather tired “Who do you think you are?” format of following people around while they scroll through old records and revisit the places and spaces where their ancestors had been. That’s not to belittle the experience of the three families in search of answers about the fate of their great uncles or aunts – this is quite an important thing to do when there has been something “unspoken” in the family past – but the programme absolutely failed to deliver any answers or any closure beyond the sort which says “this was the spot where…” and “we’re not quite sure why what happened, happened” etc.  Place is important, naming is important, but all in all it was very shallow documentary making, though perhaps it was well intentioned.

My grandfather, Charlie, was named as the officer in charge of the arresting party in the Red Cow incident (four people were arrested in Drumcondra for putting up anti-treaty posters). The implication left hanging (the programme said “there are no official records of what happened next”) in the audience’s mind must surely have been that Charlie, a local lad much the same age, had a connection with the three teenagers deaths later that night. But hold on, there are indeed official records of what happened next. There was also an inquiry. There were records of the three young lads being discharged from custody three hours after arrest in the evening. Charlie was one of the arresting officers, but not the senior one present. He was not involved in their interrogation. No evidence was ever offered that he was involved. The programme failed to make most of these points, and they are surely not nontrivial if you are naming an officer so prominently in an incident which you are making a film about precisely because it has remained a mystery to this day what actually happened to the victims.

Voices are silenced over time in conflict. In Civil conflict, this is made worse by the shame and festering of close contact turning on close contact. But if you are going to get to the bottom of what happened, if you are going to do justice to those who cannot speak for themselves, then you need to have facts, or find them. RTE is guilty of pandering to a kind of confessional sentimentalism and sensationalism that is now a genre: “ancest-reality” TV.

The RTE program is on YouTube and can be watched here.

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“I Don’t Think That Today’s Generation Could Survive It” – RTÉ Archives.

Major-General Emmet Dalton speaks with Cathal O’Shannon in the 1978 RTE documentary “Emmet Dalton remembers”. This portion of the film is focused on the First World War, and Emmet’s part in it.  Later in this segment, Emmet goes on to describe the scene of the death of Tom Kettle, the Irish poet and Emmet’s friend, in battle.  Only a few years later, Emmet would be part of more history as Michael Collins lay dying in his arms at Béal na Bláth.

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